Molly Brown Distillery Rises to the Occasion With Unsinkable Whiskey

Justin Lee and Stephen DeGruccuo own Molly Brown Distillery.
Justin Lee and Stephen DeGruccuo own Molly Brown Distillery. Linnea Covington
After dealing with pandemic shutdowns and road construction along York Street that made getting inside the building almost impossible, the Molly Brown Distillery has proven to be unsinkable — like its namesake.

"Everything here was done by us, so we were able to do things on a shoestring budget," explains co-founder Justin Lee, who launched the distillery in October 2015 with his partner, Stephen DeGruccuo. At the time, the warehouse on the north edge of Denver was just a white shell, and the two men built the entire operation from the ground up, doing all the manual labor themselves.
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Molly Brown Distillery produces two bottles of booze, a bourbon and a rye bourbon.
Linnea Covington
They hit on the name because they wanted to create a solid whiskey that had the strength and spirit of the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Although Margaret Brown, a Colorado socialite and social activist who survived the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, never actually went by Molly, the 1960s Broadway musical starring Debbie Reynolds called Brown that, and the nickname stuck.

"We had a list of thousands of names, then whittled it down to ten," says Lee, adding that Molly Brown wasn't the first choice, but eventually the name made the most sense for the team. "The great thing about Molly Brown is she isn't just recognized in Colorado, but other places, too."

While Brown is famous as a Coloradan, she wasn't from the Centennial State; neither are Lee or DeGruccuo. Brown was born in Missouri and died in New York. Lee hails from Mississippi and DeGruccuo is from Florida, but both men found themselves happily here in the Mile High City, and don't have any plans to leave.
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Barrels of delicious whiskey.
Linnea Covington
"I always liked whiskey and moved to Colorado in 2010 after my wife got a job here," says DeGruccuo, who doesn't have any formal training in distilling but wanted to learn all he could about it. "I didn't want to go back to working in a cube, so I sought out a distillery."

In 2011, Lee started working with Seth Johnson at Boulder's J&L Distilling Company. That's where he met DeGruccuo, who was volunteering there in order to learn more about the distilling business. Lee left J&L in 2015 over creative differences and teamed up with DeGruccuo to create the Molly Brown Distillery.

Lee, who has a degree in chemical engineering, had started a do-it-yourself distillery in his house during college. "I realized what I had in my basement at that time was more advanced than some people's professional business," he recalls. He handled organizing and creating the Molly Brown Distillery systems using whatever was available. Instead of fancy stills, for example, spirits are fermented in former milk containers scored from a dairy. Still, the system runs like a finely tuned machine, with computers making sure everything starts and stops to Lee's orders; he can run the operation from a tablet in the next room.
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The milk containers that now are used to make whiskey.
Linnea Covington
Like their distillery's name, the partners kept their ingredients Colorado-centric. The water is from the mountains and the whole grain comes from Root Shoot Malting in Loveland; it's milled at the distillery.

"We think there are qualities to the local water and grains that make Colorado bourbon superior to some other whiskeys from the bourbon belt," says Lee. "Here we do every single thing except make the bottles, so every dollar spent on and for this bourbon stays in Colorado."

In April 2019, the first Molly Brown whiskey was finally poured into barrels; almost a year later, it was ready for bottling — just in time for the statewide business shutdown at the start of the pandemic.

For a time, the team stopped making whiskey in order to reserve resources and space. But they managed to get at least some bottles of the Molly Brown Bourbon Whiskey and High Rye Bourbon into local liquor stores, where they began getting good reviews. Given the Molly Brown name, the Colorado spirits could have been gimmicky, but instead they're smooth, well-rounded, and worth the $45- to $55-per-bottle price tag.

"The art is in knowing the flavors and understanding the flavors," concludes Lee, "then knowing how to produce consistency."

Unser Karting & Events at 7300 Broadway is carrying the spirits, as well as offering three draft Molly Brown cocktails at the entertainment center. And now through November, the two Molly Brown bourbons are being highlighted by RackHouse Whiskey Club, a national online purveyor of small-batch whiskey.
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There's plenty of room to hang out and drink in the tasting room.
Linnea Covington
But the biggest boost came earlier this month, when the Molly Brown Distillery finally opened its tasting room on October 16.

Here, too, the partners built everything from scratch. Much of the furniture came from the Briarwood Inn in Golden, which closed in 2017. While there are no television sets yet, visitors can sip whiskey or a cocktail while playing foosball or lounging on a couch with friends.

With the road work completed and the tasting room now open, it looks like smooth sailing ahead for this Molly Brown.

The Molly Brown Distillery is located at 2300 East 77th Avenue, Unit 300A. You can visit from 4 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 2 to 9 p.m. on Saturdays; call 720-593-9433 for more information.
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Linnea Covington moved back to Denver after spending thirteen years in New York City and couldn't be happier to be home, exploring the Mile High and eating as much as possible, especially when it involves pizza or ice cream.
Contact: Linnea Covington

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